Chocolate is the ultimate indulgence, both a luxurious dessert base and a daily pick-me-up, and since it was first discovered by the Maya of Mesoamerica, chocolate in all of its forms has been delighting the human race, from South America to Siberia.
This delicious food product starts with the cacao bean, which comes from the Spanish translation of the Aztec word for the bean that chocolate came from: chcahuatl. The story goes that English traders added their own spin on the word, misspelling it as cocoa, which stuck.
The Mayan’s didn’t produce anything that we would recognise as chocolate. They dried and ground the beans before mixing them with water to make a drink that was bitter, frothy and often combined with chilli. When the Aztec empire conquered the Mayans, they embraced the drink. In fact, both groups believed that chocolate came from the gods. The Aztecs gave it as drink to victorious warriors after battle, used it during religious rituals, and even employed cacao beans as a form of currency. They called the drink derived from the cacao bean ‘xocolatl’ which may be the source of the modern word chocolate, although it may also come from ‘choqui’, meaning warmth.
After the Spanish colonised the region, the drink came back to Europe, and became a big hit. Originally it was used as a medicine, but modern chocolate was born when some Europeans tried sweetening it with sugar, honey or vanilla. The result was delicious and from the Spanish royal family, the drink spread rapidly among the European aristocracies.
The next stage in the development of chocolate came in 1828 when Coenraad van Houten of Amsterdam invented the ‘cocoa press’, which made it possible to remove the fat from a cacao bean, leaving a fine powder. This produced a tastier drink, and soon people started to add milk to it to enhance the luxury of the product. Then in 1847, JS Fry and Sons hit upon the idea of recombining the fat of the bean with the powder, adding sugar and setting it in moulds, thus creating the first chocolate bar, a product that was further refined by Daniel Peter of Switzerland, who added powdered milk to produce milk chocolate. Since then, chocolate has gone from strength to strength.
The supermarket shelves may be heaving with mass-produced chocolate, but there are a number of English artisan chocolatiers, who are producing a fabulous range of chocolate confection. Here are six of the best English chocolate makers to look out for.
Dormouse Chocolates – Manchester
The founder of Dormouse Chocolate, Isobel Carse, started making chocolate in her home back in 2015, even down to the peeling of the cacao beans. From those humble beginnings, her business has expanded and now operates out of Manchester’s Great Northern Warehouse, producing micro batches of chocolate.
The core product is based on a combination of simple ingredients: cacao, sugar, and organic milk powder, but Dormouse also make a range of limited edition bars, such as the Christmas stollen bar, containing roasted almonds and cherries. And fans of white chocolate will enjoy the 39% Madagascan Toasted White, produced with caramelised milk powder, which has the distinction of being the only white bar to earn gold at the 2018’s Academy of Chocolate Awards.
Land – East London
Land was founded by chocolatier Phil Landers, who launched the company after returning from travelling in Central America where he worked on a cocoa farm. From his base in East London, Landers hand sorts cocoa beans before going through the protracted process of roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding and conching, producing 60kg batches twice a week.
As well as using single origin beans from around the glob, Landers also works with local producers where possible. For example, his 65% Malt Dark Chocolate bar draws on malt barley grain from an East London brewery, and he works with a local forager to obtain London-based ingredients including cobnuts, fennel and alexander seeds. Land is also well known for producing an exquisite drinking chocolate, which is sold in some of London’s top eateries.
Pump St Bakery – Suffolk
As the name suggests, Pump St operates primarily as a bakery, in Orford, Suffolk, but it also turns out some of England’s best small batch bean-to-bar chocolate, which has won a host of awards. Like the bread products that are its staple, Pump St’s chocolate is built around the beauty of local sourcing, and it employs a host of close to home ingredients, including rye and sourdough breadcrumbs. And if the combination of bread and chocolate sounds ideal, you should definitely check out the Pump St limited edition bars, based around Panettone, Eccles cakes and Hot Cross Buns.
Creighton’s – Bedfordshire
Creighton’s was founded in 2010 by a mother-daughter combination, Andrea Huntingdon and Lucy Elliott, and has become famous for its small-batch, handmade chocolate as well as the innovative flavour combinations they come up with, including everything from ramen to retro biscuits. Creighton’s operates with an all-woman team of five and over the last ten years has expanded to the point where they can produce as many as 10,000 bars a week, with almost all the work carried out by hand.
Their distinctive bars incorporate ingredients from all over the UK, including Maldon sea salt, Scottish edible flowers, Bedfordshire-roasted coffee beans and Yorkshire biscuits. A particularly popular product from Creighton’s is the Spoon of Cereal bar, which features marshmallow-flavoured white chocolate with cereal hoops, and gin lovers should definitely check out the Pink Gin chocolate bar which is produced through a collaboration with Tatty Devine, a London jewellery maker.
Willie’s Cacao – Devon
Founded by chocolate maker Willie Harcourt-Cooze, Willie’s Cacao produces over 25 products, yet still relies on a low-tech approach, relying on antique machines and a hand-made ethos. Harcourt-Cooze employs 100% natural ingredients to produce small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate and employs a famously painstaking attention to detail, ensuring that the chocolate is tried and tested at each stage of the process, so each batch can take up to 21 days to produce. Known for its range of chocolate truffles and bars, Willie’s also produces a popular drinking chocolate.
Solkiki – Dorset
Launched in 2015, Solkiki has earned an impressive collection of awards and prizes for their bean-to-bar vegan chocolate. In fact, the company has gathered over 70 international awards. Their core range is focused on high quality single-estate chocolate, produced in a building that is powered by renewable energy, and includes over 40 bars that cover the whole range from white to ultra dark.
Solkiki’s micro-batch chocolate, produced in batch sizes of less than 50kg, is a much sought-after product, which features local ingredients, including Dorset apples and home-grown chillies.